Tag Archives: sulfide mining

Mozambique, Michigan, and the SEC Complaint Against Rio Tinto

Chinde_Rusting_boats

Rusting boats at the port of Chinde, where Rio Tinto proposed to barge Riversdale coal via the Zambezi River.

Yesterday, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought a complaint in New York City against Rio Tinto, charging Tom Albanese, the former CEO of Rio Tinto, and Guy Elliott, his Chief Financial Officer, with fraud. According to the complaint, Albanese and Elliott actively misled the Rio Tinto board, audit committee, auditors, and the investing public about their acquisition of the Riversdale coal business in Mozambique in 2011.

The fraud that Albanese and Elliott are accused of perpetrating looks awfully familiar to those who have followed the development of Eagle Mine and the controversy over County Road 595. Having noticed the parallel between Mozambique and Michigan back in 2013, when Tom Albanese was forced to step down, I now have to wonder whether prosecutors will take the company’s representations around the Eagle Mine into account when building their case.

In Mozambique, they told investors, coal would be transported by barge to the Indian Ocean port of Chinde. Although their technical advisors “highlighted the ‘showstopping’ risks” associated with the barging proposals before the acquisition, Albanese and Elliott blundered recklessly ahead. Then eight months later, the Mozambique government denied Rio Tinto a permit to transport the coal by barge down the Zambezi River. Suddenly, the coal business they had acquired for $3.7 billion appeared to be worth a negative $680 million. According to the SEC’s complaint, Albanese and Elliott “concealed and glossed over” the fact that they had no viable haul route for the 30 million tons per year they projected in their business plans, and misled investors as they raised $5.5 billion in US debt offerings.

In that very same period, Rio Tinto was also promoting Eagle Mine to investors and promising economic renewal in the Upper Peninsula, though they had not yet secured a transportation route — a haul route — for Eagle’s sulfide ore. In Michigan, it appears, the company took the same cavalier attitude toward planning and risk that the SEC complaint says got them into trouble in Mozambique.

Way back in 2005, John Cherry, who was then a Kennecott Minerals project manager and is now President and CEO of the Polymet project in Minnesota, characterized Eagle as a “direct ship” operation, “meaning that the rock would not be processed on site, thereby avoiding the storage of highly toxic debris left over, called tailings.” Presumably this is what Michigan DEQ’s Robert McCann had in mind in 2007, when he told The Blade that Kennecott’s permit “would require them to keep the ores underground, put them in covered rail cars, and ship them to Ontario for processing”; the Marquette Monthly told roughly the same story that year, only now there were trucks in the picture: “ore would be transported by truck and rail to a processing site in Ontario.” This seems to have been nothing more than a cover story.

Everything changed in 2008, when Rio Tinto bought the Humboldt Mill. Those permit requirements the DEQ’s McCann touted back in 2005? They were quickly abandoned. Covered rail cars come into the picture only after the ore is crushed, ground into a slurry, floated and rendered into concentrate at Humboldt Mill. A glossy 2010 company publication promoting Eagle Mine includes not a single word about how Rio Tinto and Kennecott plan to travel the 30 kilometers from mine to mill: “Happily, processing of the nickel and copper can take place in Humboldt, around 30 kilometres [sic] away, at a previously abandoned iron ore plant.” By 2011, the company had “considered more than a half dozen transportation routes” from mine to mill, according to a Marquette Mining Journal article by John Pepin published in February of that year, but they still had no viable haul route.

A good prosecutor with a rigorous and thorough discovery process would probably be able to determine whether the evasions and misrepresentations perpetuated on the public over the Eagle Mine haul route also amounted to fraud, or were part of a larger pattern of deliberately misleading statements. It’s clear Rio Tinto never came clean — and perhaps never really had a firm plan — on mine to mill transport at Eagle before it sold the works to Lundin Mining in June of 2013 and decamped. As long as regulators in Michigan continued to be more accommodating than those in Mozambique, the company seems to have been content to let the people of Marquette County fight out the haul route issue among themselves.

Will Pruitt Retreat From the Yellow Dog Plains?

It’s no coincidence that the Marquette County Road Commission announced that it would renew the battle for County Road 595 just as the U.S. Senate geared up to confirm Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA.

CR 595 seemed like a lost cause after Judge Robert Holmes Bell denied a motion to alter or amend his dismissal of MCRC v. EPA back in December. (I wrote about that motion here). But if the election of Trump and his nomination of Pruitt can change the outlook for big mining projects like the Pebble Mine in Alaska, it can certainly help the MCRC build a haul road for Lundin Mining through the Yellow Dog wilderness.

A federal mediator is now scheduled to hear from both sides on March 9th. The appeal will go forward in the event the parties cannot agree.

The Pacific Legal Foundation — which now represents the MCRC — is clearly well equipped to appeal Bell’s decision. The libertarian-leaning PLF are even more likely than their Clark Hill predecessors to grandstand about federal overreach and economic self-determination. As I’ve tried to suggest in other posts (e.g., here or here), that’s cynical posturing: in this case a victory for the Road Commission will amount to ceding economic development authority to a Canadian mining company and its local proxies.

But libertarian huffing and puffing will not be what makes the Pacific Legal Foundation especially formidable. The PLF argued, and won, the Hawkes decision — which, as I explained in previous post, allowed the plaintiffs to challenge a ruling that wetlands on their property were subject to the Clean Water Act — and they regard Judge Bell’s rejection of the Hawkes decision in the CR 595 case as “a legally reversible error.” Indeed, the PLF are already advertising the Marquette County Road Commission’s case on their blog as “Hawkes Come to Michigan.”

And after today’s confirmation of Pruitt, the PLF will likely have have a much less formidable opponent in the EPA. The decision to go forward with this appeal clearly took that into account. Hawkes may not need to come to Michigan at all. Pruitt might just order the EPA to retreat.

Update, 24 August 2017: New briefs recently filed with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals show the Road Commission asking to present oral arguments in this case.

The case turns on three points: whether EPA objections constitute “final agency action” and are therefore subject to judicial review (a claim I explored here); failing that first condition, judicial review might be warranted under Leedom v. Kyne (which provides an exception to the final agency action rule when an agency’s conduct is “a readily-observable usurpation of power,” but the court has already ruled that the Leedom exception does not apply in this case); failing on those scores, the Road Commission wants to invoke a “futility exception” in order to bring the case under judicial review: the Army Corps of Engineers, they say, had already decided against County Road 595, and there was no point in returning to the permit process. But as the EPA notes in its 8 August response, this is speculative on the part of the Road Commission.

The larger issue here — which helps put the MCRC case in context — is that this ongoing litigation concerns a provision of the Clean Water Act, Section 404, which covers permits issued to discharge dredged or fill materials into the waters of the United States. Since stepping into his role at EPA, Scott Pruitt has been leading the charge to rescind the Obama-era definition those waters, revert to an earlier (pre-2015) definition, and make enforcement of the Clean Water Act more favorable to industries like mining.  If MCRC v. EPA continues to make its way through the courts, the case could easily become caught up in the toxic politics of Pruitt’s tenure at EPA.

Update, 17 October 2017: Oral argument is now scheduled for Tuesday, 5 December, before a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a 15 October Detroit News op-ed, Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Mark Miller argues EPA should “immediately” retreat, to deliver on Trump’s campaign promises and “send a signal to the EPA bureaucrats.” It would appear that the Marquette County Road Commission is being enlisted in what a recent episode of Frontline calls the “War on the EPA” and the larger political project to dismantle the administrative state.

Some remarks on “another kind of power”

A new post about the merger of two Upper Peninsula environmental organizations on Keweenaw Now includes this short video excerpt of the talk I gave in Marquette, Michigan a while back about the power and responsibility we have to protect water and wild places from unsustainable development.

You can read the full text of my remarks here.

Three Questions for the Michigan DEQ on the Back Forty Project

Earlier this month, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced its intention to permit the Back Forty Project, an open-pit gold and zinc sulfide ore mine that Aquila Resources, a Canadian company, plans to develop near the headwaters of the Menominee River. In response to the MDEQ’s request for public comment by November 3rd, I’ve submitted these three questions. I’m posting them here so that others might consider them in the run up to the public meeting with the MDEQ in Stephenson, Michigan on October 6th.

  1. In determining that the Back Forty Project application meets the requirements for approval under Part 632, did MDEQ take into account the cumulative effects of sulfide mining throughout the Lake Superior watershed? We know that the Back Forty project poses a significant risk to the Menominee River all by itself. With the mine in close proximity to the river, a flood, berm collapse, subsidence or a slide could destroy the Menominee River; to answer these serious concerns by asking the company to add a “synthetic, manmade liner under their waste/tailing rock facility,” as the DEQ has proposed, is to trivialize them. Other development that the mine will inevitably bring, including haul routes, power lines, lights, fueling stations, exhaust and machine noise, will leave a large industrial footprint and disturb the Menominee River and its environs in countless ways. At the same time, this mine will heighten the risk, in the long term, of large-scale environmental destruction posed by the resurgence of sulfide mining not just in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but in Minnesota and Canada as well — all around the lake and throughout the Lake Superior watershed. Has the DEQ completed or participated with neighboring state agencies and tribal authorities in a scientific study of the cumulative impacts of sulfide mining around Lake Superior? Has the DEQ issued guidance on how cumulative environmental effects should factor into its decision-making process for permitting new mines in Michigan?
  2. Has MDEQ made any determination about the human rights implications of its decision to allow the Back Forty project to go forward? Human rights are not outside the DEQ’s bailiwick, no matter how hard it may try to exempt itself. Witness Flint. In the present case, the DEQ’s oversight is inextricably bound up with the state’s obligation to protect human rights abuses by third parties. Aquila’s Back Forty project is sure to disturb, and likely to desecrate, lands traditionally belonging to the Menominee and still held sacred by them; and making provisions for archaeological recovery and preservation of mounds and other sacred sites does not adequately address the basic human rights issues involved here. The headwaters of the Menominee River are central to the tribe’s creation story, marking the place where the Menominee people originated. Their very name derives from manoomin, or wild rice, which will not survive changes in sulfate levels or degradation of overall water quality. As tribal member Guy Reiter has said, “It’s no different than if an open-pit sulfide mine was put in Bethlehem for the Christians.” Seen from this perspective, the Back Forty is not only an affront to Menominee history; it also puts the cultural survival of the Menominee people at risk. How will the DEQ factor such human rights considerations into its decision-making process?
  3. What has the DEQ done to restore trust in its authority, and reassure the Menominee and people living downstream from the Back Forty project in Michigan and Wisconsin that it will exercise appropriate care? The Flint water crisis cast a long shadow, and reinforced the perception that “politics and poverty are big factors” in DEQ decision making. “The same attitude of disregard for citizens and the environment has repeated itself in DEQ decisions across our state for well over a decade,” said Marquette attorney Michelle Halley after news of the Flint water crisis broke; controversy over the renewed Groundwater Discharge Permit issued by MDEQ at Eagle Mine and legitimate concerns about lax oversight at Eagle East help make her case. Like all government agencies, the Michigan DEQ should operate in sunlight. Already, however, troubling questions have been raised about the transparency of the Back Forty permitting process. For example, Al Gedicks, Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, asks why the DEQ appears to be in a “rush” to grant the Back Forty permit. So as things now stand, the DEQ enjoys de jure authority in Michigan under Part 632, but it is unclear whether the DEQ still enjoys de facto authority, which could only derive from demonstrations of regulatory competence. How does MDEQ intend to quell public concern that it is compromised or incompetent, and reassure the public that it is a responsible steward?

Save the Wild UP December Gala Keynote Address

This is the text I prepared for my remarks at the Save The Wild UP December Gala. My talk deals with the ethics of Lake Superior mining, connecting it with climate change, the loss of the wild and the dawn of the Anthropocene. It’s also a reflection on human ingenuity and human responsibility. The half-hour keynote makes for a long blog post, but I hope readers will find something here worth sharing and discussing.  

1

When you invited me to speak tonight, I tried almost immediately to come up with names of people who might be better suited to the task. In this crowd, I ought to be listening and trying to catch up.

I’m an outsider, and a latecomer to boot. Some of you were here when Kennecott and Rio Tinto first staked their claim to the Yellow Dog Plains. I didn’t fully appreciate the extent of the new mining activity in this area and all around Lake Superior until about 2012. That was right after Ken Ross and I had finished making 1913 Massacre, our documentary about the Italian Hall disaster.

I was so caught up in the story our film tells that I was under the impression that copper mining — sulfide mining — was a thing of the past in the Upper Peninsula.

Very near the end of 1913 Massacre, there’s an interview with an Army veteran who’s sitting at the counter of the Evergreen Diner, drinking a coffee and smoking a cigarette. He says that after the copper mines closed in 1968, attempts to re-open them failed because people were “bitching about the environment and all that shit and the water and the runoff.” The camera, meanwhile, is exploring the industrial damage left behind by the mining operation.

This is the one moment in the film where we had to bleep out some bad language before Minnesota Public Television would air 1913 Massacre on Labor Day in 2013. The only time anyone in our film curses is when the subject turns to protecting the water and the environment.

That these two things — a destroyed, toxic landscape and a hostility toward people who care about the environment — exist side by side; that people can watch a mining company leave a place in ruins, poison its waters, damage it to the point that it’s now a Superfund site, with high levels of stomach cancer and fish that can’t be eaten, and direct their anger and curses at people trying to prevent it from happening again: our film presents all that as part of what we’ve come to call “mining’s toxic legacy.”

The Army veteran went on to say — this part didn’t make it into the film — that people who bitch about the environment are “people from out of town.” He wasn’t complaining about environmental regulation or about big government; he was complaining instead about out-of-towners, strangers who make it tough for regular guys to make a living.

Strangers can be people from faraway, or just people from whom you feel estranged: people who don’t share your ways or speak your language; and it would be possible to talk at some length about the way the mining operations in the Keweenaw estranged people from each other and from the place they live.

Everywhere it goes, it seems, mining divides and displaces people. It’s never just about extracting ore from the ground. Mining is development and the power to direct it.

When strangers come to town or when people feel estranged, we need translators, guides and mediators. This is one reason why it’s so important to have a local, grassroots organization dedicated to the shared interests people have in the nature and culture of the Upper Peninsula.

You might look like the underdog right now. But I think you’ll agree that there’s a pressing need for a more responsible, inclusive and respectful conversation about development in this place. Save the Wild UP is in a great position to lead it.

2

Back home in Brooklyn, I have a fig tree. I planted it last spring. I just finished wrapping it for the winter. I love the work the fig tree involves — the care it involves — because it connects me to the memory of my grandfather and the fig tree he kept. My tree connects me to my family tree (my roots), to history, and in my imagination the tree belongs as much to history as it does to nature. The life of my tree depends almost entirely on my care. I sometimes wonder if there is anything wild about it.

There is a wild fig. The ancient Greeks even had a special word for it: φήληξ. They seem to have derived its name from another word (φῆλος) meaning “deceitful,” because the wild fig seemed ripe when it was not really so. The ancient world knew that wildness is tricky. It can deceive and elude us, or challenge our powers of discernment.

Nature, we claim, is our dominion, as if it (naturally, somehow) belonged to history, the world of human activity. Our economy organizes nature to produce natural resources. But the wild represents a living world apart from history and another order of value altogether.

We can’t assimilate the wild into an engineered and technical environment: it will cease to be wild the instant we try. The wild begins where engineering and ingenuity stop, at the limits of human authority and command. So “wild” is sometimes used to mean beyond the reach of authority, out of control.

But what’s wild is not alien. Sometimes the wild calls out to us, usually to ward us off. The wild is almost always in flight from us, leaving tracks and traces for us to read. It always responds to us, as wild rice and stoneflies respond to the slightest change in water quality, offering guidance if we are attentive and humble enough to take it.

The wild marks the limits of our powers, our ingenuity and ambition, and before it we ought to go gently.

We have not.

The headlines tell us that our carbon-intensive civilization, which brought us so many material advantages, is now hastening its own demise. We are entering an entirely new era of human life on earth. Some scientists and philosophers talk about the end of the Holocene and the beginning of the Anthropocene — the dawn of a new geological epoch of our making.

The story beneath the headlines is a record of loss. A map of the terrestrial biosphere shows that today only a quarter remains “wild” — that is, “without human settlements or substantial land use” — and even less is in a semi-natural state. Data from the Mauna Loa Observatory tell us that this year was the last time “anyone now alive on planet Earth will ever see” CO2 concentrations lower than 400 parts per million. Those levels started rising in the 1700s with the industrial revolution, spiked dramatically in the postwar period and have climbed steadily higher. Since 1970, the populations of vertebrate animals have dropped by 52 percent. The same report by the World Wildlife Fund tells us that freshwater animal species have declined by 76 percent since 1970.

That precipitous drop in freshwater species should set off alarm bells, especially here, on the shores of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. Since the 1970s, Lake Superior surface-water temperatures have risen and ice cover has dramatically reduced. Walleye can now live in more areas of the lake than ever before. There’s an earlier onset of summer stratification. By mid-century, according to the National Wildlife Federation, Lake Superior may be mostly ice-free in a typical winter.

Now I know it’s the holiday season and these aren’t exactly tidings of comfort and joy, but they are tidings all the same. And what they announce is this: we are responsible. We’re responsible for all this destruction of the wild — of the whole web of life — and for the changes sweeping over us. Denial will not let us off the hook.

Responsibility is not just about being held accountable for the damage you’ve done; it’s also about taking steps to limit damage, repair the broken world, reclaim it and make things better. We have that responsibility to ourselves and to future generations.

“Loss belongs to history,” writes the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, “while politics and life are about what is still to be done.” But, he’s careful to remind us, loss still has a strong claim on the way we live now and on our future plans. The loss of the wild gives us a new responsibility that should inform our politics and our lives at every turn, direct the investments we make and the activities we sanction, and give rise to new conversations about what to do.

Saving the wild is now bound up, inextricably, with saving the human world — for ourselves and for future generations. We can appreciate in a new way Thoreau’s famous statement: “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”

3

Knowing all this, why don’t we act? Why haven’t we acted?

One answer to this question has to do with the word “we,” and our underdeveloped capacity for coordinated, collective action.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, suggested another good answer in a speech he gave back in September to a group of insurance industry executives. Not exactly a bunch of tree huggers, but actuaries, people interested in accounting for risks and costs.

Carney talked about the future in terms of horizons, near versus long term. When we focus only on the near term, we don’t account for the true cost of our activities. That’s why for Carney, climate change is a “tragedy of the horizon,” or the tragic consequence of our inability to see and plan and take steps beyond the near term. Since “the catastrophic effects of climate change will be felt beyond our immediate horizons” — beyond the business cycle and the quarterly earnings reports, beyond the political cycle and the current election — we have deferred the cost of fixing the problem to future generations.

We’ve organized things — markets, politics, institutions — so that near-term interests win out over longer-term well-being and more sustainable arrangements.

Nowadays, if you look out at the Lake Superior horizon, you might see all the way to China. An unsustainable scheme of Chinese urbanization and economic growth fueled much of the new mining activity around the lake, and especially the exploration and exploitation of copper-rich deposits. Over the last decade or so, copper was used not just to build and wire new Chinese cities, many of which today stand empty; it was used mainly for collateral on loans. As much as 80 percent of the copper China imported was used to back loans. Today, as China unravels and the price of copper plunges, commodities investors are expressing remorse. Nickel’s down, too. The rush for Lake Superior minerals now seems to have been reckless — part of a larger market failure, with unforeseen risks and costs current and future generations are likely to incur.

Or look at the Polymet project in Minnesota. It’s an exaggerated case of not accounting for the long-term costs of mining. Currently, the Polymet Environmental Impact Statement says that water treatment will go on “indefinitely” at a cost of 3-6 million dollars a year. There is no way, so far as I know, to multiply 3 or 6 million dollars by a factor of indefinitely; and even the company’s most concrete prediction is 500 years of water treatment. Just to put that in perspective, the state of Minnesota has only been around since 1858: 157 years.

How is it possible that a proposal like this can be taken seriously? They promise jobs, a fix to a near-term problem; but there’s something else at work here as well: technology or, rather, misplaced faith in technology and human ingenuity. We make technology a proxy for human responsibility.

But technological advances that create efficiencies or solve problems for mining companies can carry hidden social and environmental costs: for example, a study done after the Mount Polley spill last year concludes that “new technologies, deployed in the absence of robust regulation” have fostered a “disturbing trend of more severe tailings failures.” Recent events in Brazil underline the point.

Great machinery, even full automation, will never amount to responsible stewardship. New technologies can have unintended consequences, distancing us from each other and from our responsibilities. Things corrode, repairs are made or not, entities dissolve, contracts are broken, obligations are forgotten, empires decline and fall, even within definite time horizons.

The industrial development that mining brings distorts horizons in another way. One theme of Tom Power’s research on the economics of the Lake Superior region and on what he calls wilderness economics is that “protecting the quality of the living environment…lays the base for future, diversified economic development.” Over-reliance on mining — and mining that damages or threatens the living environment — hinders economic diversification and makes the economy less resilient. It also requires us to discount the value of water and land it puts at risk, a value that is only going to increase over the long term, as freshwater becomes ever more scarce and as carbon capture afforded by peatlands and forests becomes more critical.

To allow that calculation for the nonce is not to concede that the market value of these wild places is their true value. The living world, creation and generation, is more than a bundle of ecosystem services, a tap and a sink for human activity. That way of thinking won’t save the wild; it is bound to open the door to the very forces that have already destroyed so much of it.

4

Let’s not lose sight of the larger point: if you take the long view, looking forward into the future and out across the horizon, protecting the land and water in this region actually looks like a more attractive investment than extracting all the ore from the ground.

That makes the capture of government by mining and extractive industry — from Marquette County to the state and federal levels — all the more troubling and deplorable. It directs investment and development down these risky and unsustainable paths, where short-term interests of multinational corporate actors are paramount and enjoy the full protection of law. The coercive power of the state, which ought to place constraints on corporate actors, is used mainly to benefit them. When things go south, society ends up bearing the cost.

This grassroots effort challenges that whole topsy-turvy arrangement. We have to continue to challenge it, at every opportunity, in every forum, recognizing that the results we’re looking for probably aren’t going to come on a quarterly basis or anytime soon. We have to lengthen our horizons.

At the same time, we have to re-open the conversation about how we are going to organize ourselves in this place, so that what remains of the wild UP can flourish and the people living here can thrive.

It’s imperative, too, that Save the Wild UP stay connected with other groups around the lake facing similar challenges. To take just one example: Kathleen’s recent Op Ed in the Star Tribune about Governor Dayton’s visit to the Eagle Mine. That made a difference to people in Minnesota: it was widely shared and talked about. People connected with it.

I have to believe that there’s power even in these little connections — and in conversation, cooperation and community. There is power where we come together, when we are no longer strangers and no longer estranged from each other. There would be power in an international congress where people from all around Lake Superior gathered to talk about responsible development. This isn’t the power the mining companies and the state can wield; it’s another kind of power, coordinated, collective, non-coercive, one we as a society have not done enough to realize.

We’re going to need that power to meet this current set of challenges.

Now you may have noticed that I keep using the word “we,” and I’m conscious that by including myself here I might be overstepping and intruding. But maybe that’s why I keep coming back to the UP: deep down, I know this is not a faraway or a strange place but a familiar place, where I have a stake in things — where we all have a stake.

The “wild UP” that we are organized to save is not just wilderness, waterfalls, wolves and warblers. It is the stage of humanity’s tragic predicament. It marks a boundary that we cross at our great peril. It can be a vital source of economic and social renewal.

Ultimately, saving the wild UP is about realizing the power and political authority we all have, everyone in this room, people across the UP and around the lake, to govern ourselves and make decisions about the future we want. What do we see on the horizon? What do we want for our children, grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and so on down the line? What do future generations require of us? What do we owe them?

That’s a conversation we need to keep having. And that’s why this organization deserves all the support we can give it, because Save the Wild UP connects us and shows us that we can be both powerful and responsible at the same time.

Thanks for listening so patiently, and thanks again for inviting me to the Gala.

delivered 5 December 2015

Two Upcoming Events In Marquette, Michigan

SWUP2015Gala

On Saturday, December 5th, I’ll be at Save the Wild UP’s December Gala, where I’ve been invited to give the keynote.

Save the Wild UP is a great local grassroots organization dedicated to preserving and celebrating the nature and the culture of the Upper Peninsula. The people at Save the Wild UP (most of them are volunteers) do the work of educators, naturalists, social scientists, industry watchdogs and field guides all throughout the year, and I hear they throw a great party, too.

If you can’t make it to Steinhaus Market on the 5th, and even if you live far from Marquette or have never been to the Upper Peninsula, check out Save the Wild UP’s website, learn about the critical work they’re doing, and consider making an end-of-year, tax-deductible contribution to support their work.

I’ll post the text of my remarks here after I talk.

On Monday, December 7th, the Peter White Library in Marquette will be screening 1913 Massacre,, the feature length documentary film I made with Ken Ross about the Italian Hall disaster and the Woody Guthrie song it inspired. Part of the library’s DocuMonday series, the screening is free and open to the public. The film starts at 7PM and runs 70 minutes, and I’ll stick around afterwards to take questions, talk and say hi.

Hope to see you there.

12-7DocuMonday

Dialogue at the Rock

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources aerial photo of Flambeau Mine, after reclamation.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources aerial photo of Flambeau Mine, after reclamation.


Bill Rose, Professor Emeritus at Michigan Technological University, hopes the big rock brought over to the university from Eagle Mine — three and a half tons of nickel-copper sulfide, suffused with platinum and rare elements — will be a site for respectful gatherings. Rose says he wants to get beyond divisive and fruitless “bickering” over mining, and hopes for “constructive dialogue about mining, its opportunities and threats.” That’s a conversation many people in the Upper Peninsula have been trying, and mostly failing, to have for more than a decade.

Building dialogue about mining is notoriously difficult, even in the friendliest jurisdictions. Part of the trouble — but only part of the trouble — is that companies come to the table having invested enormous amounts of capital (and usually in a panic to service their debt and start delivering for shareholders). They are focused on the short term and the near horizon. It’s not surprising they often refuse to listen, listen badly, or try to co-opt the dialogue from the outset; and that puts people on guard. Public participation usually gets kettled to “public comment” periods overseen by a government agency or sham community forums (like the ones Rio Tinto tried to stage in the Marquette area back around 2012 and 2013). Before too long, ordinary people realize decisions about the place they live are being made elsewhere, without them.

Professor Rose says he wants “the public to participate,” but it’s unclear from his remarks (as reported) exactly he means by that, or how far beyond gawking at the big rock and marveling at new mining technology he and his colleagues want public participation to extend. Where does his invitation lead? The dialogue about mining seems to be already set within a familiar public relations narrative that is rushing toward conclusions.

This narrative features the idea that sulfide mining can now cover its tracks through reclamation and water treatment, leaving no lasting effects. So Dean Wayne Pennington (who was on hand to announce the revival of a mining engineering as a degree program at MTU) expressed confidence that new mining methods will “ensure that no legacy situations are left for future generations.” In this context, “legacy” is code for water pollution. Examples of sulfide mining’s toxic legacy are not hard to find. Some examples of “no legacy” mining would have helped Pennington’s case.

The stock example from Eagle Mine public relations — which has also been used in promoting the Polymet project in Minnesota — is the Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith, Wisconsin. Flambeau is a Rio Tinto/Kennecott project advertised as a sulfide mining reclamation success story, despite repeated litigation over less than satisfactory water quality results. The mining company won in the courts, but Flambeau remains controversial.

For his part, Rose likened “mining with environmental responsibility” to dentistry. That is not supposed to make you squirm in your chair; it’s meant to reassure people that new technology will be sufficient to address environmental concerns about sulfide mining. It also goes further, portraying mining as therapeutic — an extraction necessary to relieve pain and maintain health. Before the conversation even gets underway, we are being asked to accept technology as a proxy for responsibility and to see mining as a way of caring for the earth.

This is the story created around the big rock at Michigan Tech: the greening of mining and the benevolent power of technology. Mining is being naturalized here — made part of or partner to nature; nature, the earth itself is being remade and reclaimed by new mining technology. This theme emerged again with a new twist at the dedication ceremony, when Michigan Geological Survey Director John Yellich stood beside the big boulder to push for a new geological survey.

Yellich started out praising the “infrastructure” of the UP: “we have electrical, we have internet access and we have roads better than what [they] were.” But in a confusing turn, he moved quickly — in the same breath — from talking about mining-friendly infrastructure to talking about “people coming in and enjoying what we have here in the UP.” Yellich was obviously trying to find a way to finish his statement for the TV cameras, and end on a positive note; so he played the Peninsulam Amœnam card, and talked about mining in language ordinarily reserved for tourism.

For a brief moment, we were asked to imagine that haul roads (a continuing source of controversy and litigation around the Eagle Mine project) were scenic lakeside byways for Sunday drivers or winding paths through a quiet wood, and that UP tourism would benefit directly from further mining development.

It appears this new dialogue about mining is already off to a confusing, false start.

Laudato Si’ on Mining

The views of mining we find in the new papal encyclical Laudato Si’ clearly reflect the Latin American experience — centuries of plunder and absconded wealth, industrial development and economic underdevelopment, violence and ruin, degradation of the land and destruction of communities where mining is done. But in its careful attention to issues of water, water access, and the condition of the world’s poor, the encyclical raises serious questions about mining and the ethics of mining everywhere in the world.

Laudato Si’ explicitly addresses mining in three places, raising the very same issues that I’ve been writing about here, in connection with the new mining around Lake Superior. So I thought I would set out these passages for consideration now, with the intention of returning to them after I have had a chance to read the encyclical more carefully.

The first explicit mention of mining in Laudato Si’ comes at 29, which deals with the “serious problem” of “the quality of water available to the poor.”

Underground water sources in many places are threatened by the pollution produced in certain mining, farming and industrial activities, especially in countries lacking adequate regulation or controls. It is not only a question of industrial waste. Detergents and chemical products, commonly used in many places of the world, continue to pour into our rivers, lakes and seas.

At 51, one of the most powerful passages in the entire encyclical looks at the role of mining in creating an “ecological debt” of the global north to the global south, where raw materials are taken from the land for markets that serve the wealthy, industrialized north:

Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining.

Quoting a 2009 Christmas Message from the Bishops of Patagonia-Comahue Region of Argentina, Laudato Si’ goes on to explain that the industrialized world has incurred this debt because mining and other companies

operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital: “We note that often the businesses which operate this way are multinationals. They do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable.”

Finally, at 146, the encyclical addresses the way mining projects degrade and destroy land that indigenous communities regard as “sacred space,” often displacing them and threatening their very survival:

it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.

Can Mining Be Saved?

TeslaGigafactory

The Tesla Gigafactory, currently under construction in Storey County, Nevada.

Andrew Critchlow, Commodities Editor at The Telegraph, speculates in a recent article that Elon Musk and Tesla might “save the mining industry” by ushering in a new age of renewable energy. Domestic battery power production at the Tesla Gigafactory (now scheduled to go into production in 2016) is bound to create such demand for lithium, nickel and copper, Critchlow thinks, that the mining industry will find a way out of its current (price) slump and into new growth, or possibly a new supercycle.

“Major mining companies are already ‘future proofing’ their businesses for climate change by focusing more investment into commodities that will be required by the renewable energy industry,” writes Critchlow; and the “smart commodity investor” will follow suit, with investments in “leading producers” such as — this is Critchlow’s list — Freeport-McMoRan, Lundin Mining and Fortune Minerals.

It’s a credible scenario, but it’s also terribly short-sighted. The big switch over to domestic solar power and battery storage Musk is hyping in the run up to the opening of the Gigafactory would no doubt give miners a short-term boost, but it will also take a lasting toll on the places where copper and nickel are mined, raise serious human rights concerns, and put even more pressure on the world’s freshwater resources.

After all, the copper and nickel used to make Tesla’s batteries are going to come from places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Lundin and Freeport-McMoRan operate a joint venture at Tenke Fungurume, and which has been at the center of the recent debate in the EU parliament over conflict minerals; Peru, where protests against Southern Copper Corporation’s Tia Maria project led the government to declare a state of emergency in the province of Islay just last Friday; or the nickel and copper mining operations around Lake Superior that I’ve been following here, where there are ongoing conflicts over free, prior and informed consent, serious concerns that sulfide mining will damage freshwater ecosystems and compromise one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, fights over haul routes, and repeated complaints of lax regulatory oversight and political corruption.

Rice farmers clash with riot police in Cocachacra, Peru. The fight is over water. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

These are just a few examples that come readily to mind. It wouldn’t take much effort to name others (Oyu Tolgoi, Oak Flat, Bougainville) and to see that the same problems arise, to a greater or lesser degree, no matter where copper and nickel mining — sulfide mining — is done.

The mining industry and commodities investors have historically tended to minimize and marginalize the environmental and social costs of sulfide mining; so it’s really no surprise that Critchlow should argue that increased demand by battery producers is all it will take to “save” mining. Leave it to others, I guess, to save the world.

But the supply and demand model is reductive and misleading, even for those looking to make a fast buck. A recent Harvard study of company-community conflict in the extractive sector summarized by John Ruggie in Just Business suggests just how costly conflict can be. A mining operation with start-up capital expenditures in the $3-5 billion range will suffer losses of roughly $2 million for every day of delayed production; the original study goes even further, and fixes the number at roughly $20 million per week. Miners without authentic social license to operate lose money, full stop. So Critchlow’s is at best a flawed and myopic investment strategy that ignores significant risks. It also appears to shrug off legitimate human rights claims, and turn a blind eye to environmental degradation, and deadly violence of the kind we’re seeing in Peru right now. That’s irresponsible, if not downright reprehensible.

A Macquarie Research report cited by Critchlow claims that the switch away from fossil fuels to battery power in the home is all but inevitable. But if we make the switch to renewables and fail — once again — to address the ethics of mining, what exactly will we have saved?

A Postscript on Weird Timing and Pending Collapse

Since I wrote my last post on Eagle Mine, I’ve been thinking about the thing I most wanted to say and never managed to say. I’d hoped in that post to call attention to the weird timing of Conibear’s announcement, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to do that. The company announced the start of mining operations in the Yellow Dog Plains right in the wake of the People’s Climate March, and during a week when world leaders were gathered at the UN to discuss the global climate crisis and acknowledge the fragile condition of the biosphere.

The Eagle announcement never takes any of that into account. It makes some predictable noises about environmental responsibility. You don’t have to listen very hard to hear the dissonance.

Hands up during the 12:58 moment of silence at the People's Climate March. Just before this, a group led a chant that went something like: "Keep the tar sands in the ground / Close the mines and shut them down." Other than that I didn't hear too much talk about mining at the march.

Hands up during the 12:58 moment of silence at the People’s Climate March. Just before this, a group led a chant that went something like: “Keep the tar sands in the ground / Close the mines and shut them down.” Other than that I didn’t hear too much talk about mining at the march.

That this mining operation poses an immediate threat to the Yellow Dog watershed hardly needs saying. As I mentioned in my last post, Lundin Mining cannot point to a nickel and copper mining operation in the U.S. or Canada that has not polluted groundwater or surrounding waters, and there is no reason to believe that Eagle will be the magical exception — despite the company’s claims that the water they are discharging is drinkable. No one who makes that statement should be taken seriously, let alone believed, unless he follows it with a nice big glass of minewater, and fetches one for the kids while he’s at it.

Eagle is just the start. The bigger mining, leasing and exploration boom all around Lake Superior only magnifies the threat. One of the busiest mining operations in the world is about to be staged around one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. The timing couldn’t be worse. Freshwater ecosystems are under greater pressure than ever before. Just this week, the Living Planet Index reported a 76 percent decline in freshwater species since 1970. That alarming statistic is one very clear indication of pending environmental collapse, and reason enough to protect Lake Superior from any further encroachments by risky mining operations.

It’s disconcerting, too, that the new mining around Lake Superior was spurred, in no small part, by Chinese growth and urbanization, which put a new premium on copper and nickel; and of course urbanization in China — which starts with pouring cement and raising stainless steel — will only aggravate emissions, further compromise China’s freshwater resources, and hasten environmental collapse. It is hard to see how this can end well, and it’s difficult for me to understand why anyone would pretend it is sustainable.

The weirdest twist in all this may be that this new mining operation goes into production just as China appears to be slowing down, after two decades of heady growth. As a result, “money managers are bearish on copper,” reports Bloomberg’s Luzi Ann Javier in a review of commodity ETFs; and “global inventories of nickel tracked by the London Metal Exchange are at an all-time high.” There is a glut. The warehouses are full. Right now, at least, it looks as if the rush is over.